North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump may both sincerely want to strike a deal on North Korean denuclearization, but both are being undercut by bad counsel from below, and are further undermined by years of failed precedents and resultant distrust.
These were among the points raised by a trio of experts speaking at the East Asian Foundation in Seoul on Tuesday who are – unlike many North Korea watchers – upbeat on the Kim-Trump engagement progress. In the long aftermath of the failure to reach a deal at the February North Korea-US summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, all were cautiously optimistic on the potential of the process.
They stated that the Hanoi summit offered both sides clarity on stances and a solid starting point for future talks – if such talks do, indeed, come to pass. However, they warned that there are multiple precedents for both parties derailing deals that took years to reach.
In a world where diplomats and pundits routinely deride Trump, who had said even before entering office that he favored direct talks with North Korean leaders, the experts in Seoul were favorable and upbeat on his high-risk engagement with Kim.
“I spend most of my time engaged in efforts to constrain President Trump, but on Korea, Trump is right,” said Morton Halperin, a former director of the Policy Planning Staff at the US State Depatment under the Clinton administration, and now a senior advisor to George Soros’ Open Society Foundation.
While previous US presidents would not countenance meeting a North Korean leader, Halperin asserted that the first summit in Singapore last year “was a spectacular success … this process needed to start from the top down.”
Moreover, Trump – who is frequently accused of breaking previously negotiated deals – can likely be trusted by Kim. “The main difference between the [Iran nuclear deal] and agreements with North Korea is that someone else made those agreements, and Donald Trump made the agreements with North Korea,” Halperin said.
Trump’s counter-party, who has publicaly stated on multiple occasions his desire for economic growth, has also invested massive credibility in diplomatic engagement.
“I don’t think Kim Jong Un has come this far to let this become dormant and then die on the vine,” added Ambassador Joe DeTrani, a former US Special Envoy to the Six-Party Talks and an ex-CIA officer with two decades of experience in intelligence.
DeTrani noted that while North Korea customarily portrayed itself as an enviable nation with nothing to learn from elsewhere, Kim’s visit to the vastly more prosperous Singapore was widely disseminated in North Korean media. This makes him “a different leader” to his father and grandfather, DeTrani asserted.
“With the market system and the economic development, North Korea is looking very similar to China in the 1970s,” DeTrani said. “I think it was a strategic decision, I think Kim said, ‘I don’t want to live with another 50 years of deprivation’.”
Kim Jong Un has made clear he will only wait until the end of this year to resume negotiations. Much now hangs on the advice both leaders are receiving.
Bolton the Peacekiller
“To make a guess about [the future of the process] you have to understand how Donald Trump operates in relation to John Bolton,” Halperin said. “If John Bolton has his way, we will never go back to the table. If Donald Trump has his way, we will go back.”
Halperin was not the only expert suspicious of Bolton’s counsel. Regarding the stumbling blocks between Pyongyang and Washington, Moon Chung-in, one of the architects of South Korea’s engagement with North Korea and a high-profile advisor to President Moon Jae-in (no relation) on unification, diplomacy and national security said: “One issue is sanctions, the second is John Bolton. If Donald Trump removes him, I think that would be the most important step. If not, [resumed negotiations] would be a non-starter.”
Regarding the failure of the Hanoi summit, one stumbling block was the US delegation’s insistence on packaging chemical and biological weapons with nuclear arms and strategic missiles.
“In my view, chemical and biological weapons were a ‘John Bolton special’ to make negotiations much harder,” said Halperin. “To suddenly say ‘denuclearization means de-weaponization of weapons of mass destruction’” is a shift from the process agreed in the first summit in Singapore.
And Bolton is not the only stumbling block. Virtually the entire Washington policy establishment is disbelieving. “Ninety percent of those who are interested in North Korea are cynics, skeptics or pessimists – I would say about 10% are optimistic,” said Moon. “And out of that 10%, 9% are guarded or cautiously optimistic. Just 1% is optimistic.”
Deep state Pyongyang
Meanwhile, an apparently frustrated North Korea has recently resumed its old tricks. As well as test-launching short-range missiles, it has verbally attacked Bolton, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Democratic wannabe presidential nominee Joe Biden.
“I am disappointed seeing this coming out of Pyongyang at this juncture,” said DeTrani. “But this young leader has to work with people who have been working in these issues for decades.” He advised North Korea to cool it, suggesting: “You are playing to the critics who say you will never have a deal with North Korea.”
There is also a risk of Kim facing being pushed by hardliners in his regime. “There is great danger of catastrophe, which is why we should try and avoid any kind of ICBM test, which could screw up the entire process,” Moon added. “Trump will lose ground in Washington, so I urge North Korea to be prudent in its behavior.”
Broken deals: A long legacy
A complicating issue is decades of distrust, generated by broken deals.
The Beijing-sponsored Six-Party Talks imploded in 2008 over issues of the verification of the dismantlement of North Korean nuclear facilities. The 1994 “Agreed Framework,” under which the international community provided North Korea with light-water reactors in return for a freeze of its plutonium processing, was already troubled, with recriminations on both sides, when it finally collapsed in 2002 after Washington accused North Korea of having a secret uranium-based nuclear arms program.
And the 2012 “Leap Day” agreement on a missile test moratorium collapsed the same year after North Korea launched a satellite, which the US claimed was a de facto ICBM test.
“It takes years to come up with agreements,” lamented DeTrani. “It is easy walking away, hard renegotiating and getting traction and trust.”
And yet, it is critical to keep talking. “If you look at the history of the North Korea nuclear program, it is created when we are not talking and when we go to sanctions,” said Halperin. “When we had agreements, they agreed to slow down.”
The Hanoi summit broke down after North Korea agreed – according to a recent statement by Trump – to shut two key nuclear facilities, while the United States demanded the closure of five. While there was no further detail in Trump’s pronouncement, it is known that Kim offered to close down his key nuclear facility at Yongbyon.
The experts lauded North Korea’s offer as a reasonable starting point for future talks.
“I believe that the proposal the North Koreans put on the table, which they reiterated after the summit, should be the basis of negotiations moving forward,” said Halperin, who believes Yongbyon represents 50-70% of North Koreas nuclear facilities. “A reasonable first step is the dismantlement of the Yongbyon facility with an appropriate lessening of sanctions, though clearly not all sanctions.”
“We know Yongbyon. Yongbyon was always on the table. We took down a cooling tower and we had two US officials working with North Korean officials” during the Agreed Framework period, DeTrani said. “There are more facilities than Yonbgyon … [but] Yongbyon should be the start of the process.”
Moreover, that process must include discussion of security guarantees for North Korea, diplomatic liaison offices and economic assistance, both DeTrani and Halperin said.
How to re-boot
Even so, a third North Korea-US summit should be not rushed into without due preparation.
“If we hasten to a third summit, that is putting the cart way before the horse, our negotiators have to meet and come up with a road map,” said DeTrani. And with Kim having shuffled his top brain trust in recent months, it is not entirely clear who will be leading working-level talks.
“We need to get our lead negotiators back to the North, but we are not sure who their lead negotiator is – that is an internal issue.”
Now the two sides are divided, not only by which nuclear sites to put on the table, but also the timing of sanctions relief. “There is a fundamental difference between the US and North Korea,” said Moon. While the US demands denuclearization, followed by sanctions relief, “North Korea wants sanctions relief as a starting point.”
For all these reasons, it is critical to offer North Korea a realistic model which is not the one named by Bolton, based on the unilateral denuclearization of Libya.
“The model we want to press on the North Koreans is not Libya but Vietnam,” said Halperin. “Having been in the US government at the time of the Vietnam War, I find the relations we have now are unbelievable, and this is exactly the transformation North Koreans say they want [while] no American sees Vietnam posing a security threat to the US. “
For multiple reasons, it is critical to keep the process alive.
“This young man who studied in Switzerland, he showed he is pretty smart and flexible and has reached out,” said DeTrani. “What Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump are saying is, ‘Let’s keep this process going.’ It would be tragic if we talked away from the table.”